Archive for June, 2013

Michelangelo’s prisoner graffiti

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

Spurred by the horrors of the Sack of Rome, in 1527 Florentines revolted against their Medici rulers and established a self-governing Republic. Even as a Republic Florence maintained the pre-existing Medici alliance with France, Venice and Pope Clement VII (born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici) against the Imperial forces of Charles V. The League of Cognac, as the alliance was named, survived another two years until Pope Clement and the Republic of Venice signed the Treaty of Barcelona in June of 1529. Francis I of France wasn’t far behind. He signed the Treaty of Cambrai (aka, the Peace of the Ladies because both sides were represented by women in the negotiations, Francis by his mother Louise of Savoy and Charles by his aunt Margaret of Austria) in August of 1529.

That left Florence the sole power in Italy fighting the combined armies of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. On October 24th, 1529, Imperial troops laid siege to the city of Florence. The city was not caught unprepared. There had been rumblings since before the treaties that Pope Clement was willing to partner with Charles V if he could get Florence back for his family. The city government decided to implement defense plans from the 1526 Medici administration and created a committee, the Nine of the Militias, to work on city fortifications. Michelangelo Buonarroti was one of the Nine and was soon appointed “governor and general prosecutor of fortifications.”

His military plans were ambitious, to put it mildly. Michelangelo’s architectural endeavors had a tendency towards grandiose vision which inevitably failed to come to fruition when the money dried up and technological obstacles could not be overcome. Only a few scattered pieces of his large, complex designs were ever built, and none of them have survived. There’s a beautiful design of his fortifications for the Porta al Prato di Ognissanti, one of the city gates, in the permanent collection of Florence’s Casa Buonarroti museum which was until yesterday on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

That’s not to say Michelangelo was paralyzed by his own ambition. He set to work on smaller, more practical tasks like adding observation bastions to all the gates and strengthening the city walls with embankments. He managed to measurably improve Florence’s defenses, particularly the strategically important bell tower and hill of San Miniato, despite his own forays into the implausible and the constant interference of his enemies in government. Perhaps the government’s biggest mistake was to appoint Malatesta Baglioni chief commander of Florence’s military. Michelangelo questioned his fidelity, having seen first hand his lazy, desultory efforts in the reinforcement of the city.

Michelangelo was right. Baglioni was a traitor from minute one, surrendering Perugia right off the bat without even an attempt at defense. Michelangelo tried to alert the government that Baglioni could not be trusted, but they blew him off. On September 21st, 1529, Michelangelo fled Florence for Venice, his ultimate destination France. The Florentine government declared him an outlaw and confiscated his property, but promised they’d let him off the hook if he came back. He returned on November 20th, just under one month into the siege.

The siege of Florence lasted ten long months. Florence’s military, led by great warrior and national hero Francesco Ferruccio, fought an impressively good fight against Imperial might, but he was broken in the end by a debilitating fever that interrupted his surprise attack, by the short-sightedness and petty conflicts of Florentine government, and by the traitor Malatesta Baglioni who kept the city militia from reinforcing Ferruccio’s men at a key moment. On August 10th, 1530, Florence surrendered.

Despite political protections included in the articles of surrender, the Pope immediately got to work arresting and prosecuting Republican patriots. In just one day in October, five anti-Medici citizens were tortured and decapitated. Finally Charles V had to intervene to stop the papal bloodbath. Alessandro de’ Medici, ostensibly the son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici but widely thought to have been the illegitimate son of Pope Clement VII himself, was installed as ruler of Florence.

Michelangelo had good reason to fear for his own life in this atmosphere. He had opposed the Medici, was one of the Nine, had actively fought against the winning side, and there were false rumors that he had proposed to destroy the Medici palace in which his beloved patron Lorenzo the Magnificent had once entertained him and build in its place the Piazza of the Mules, named after the preponderance of bastards in the Medici line. So he went into hiding for three months.

It was some good hiding, too. For centuries nobody knew where he had gone. Contemporary biographers like artist Ascanio Condivi and historian Benedetto Varchi said he hid in the house of a friend. Michelangelo’s great-grandnephew Filippo Buonarroti thought he had squirreled himself away in the bell tower of San Nicolo’ church. Michelangelo left his mysterious spiderhole in November after the Pope’s retribution fury abated and he let it be known that he would pardon the artist if he would go back to working on the Medici tombs in the New Sacristy of the basilica of San Lorenzo.

The kicker is Michelangelo only had to walk up a few steps to go from his well-concealed hiding place to resuming his work on the statuary of the Medici Chapel. For those three months, Michelangelo had hidden in a small corridor underneath the New Sacristy. A cramped space just 23 feet long and 6.5 feet wide, this unknown room, which he had doubtless encountered during his earlier work on the Medici tombs, was his solitary confinement prison for three months.

It’s a testament to what a great hidey-hole it was that the corridor wasn’t discovered until 1975 when structural work was being done underneath the Medici Chapel. How did they know it was his 1530 hiding place? Well, what’s a man like Michelangelo to do with nothing but four blank walls to stare at for three months? Make them not blank, of course.

This incredible testimony of a scary, dangerous time in the master’s life has remained almost as secret since its discovery as it was in the centuries preceding. Paolo Dal Poggetto, the director of the Museum of the Medici chapels at the time of the find, decided not to open the small space to the public. The delicate charcoal drawings could not withstand the crush of breathing, sweating, coughing humanity. As always in Italy, it is possible to see them if you know who to ask and plan far ahead, but those are one-off visits. For everyone else in the world, the corridor is now and will remain off-limits.

Thanks to a new multimedia project, high resolution images and video of the drawings will now be viewable by visitors to the Bargello Museum, the Galleria dell’Accademia and in the Basilica of San Lorenzo itself.

Share

Update: three treasures go home

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

I have happy endings to report for two stories: the Chinese bronze rat and rabbit heads and the William the Conqueror silver penny have all returned to their homes.

The Chinese bronzes had the most eventful journey there and back again. They were part of a fountain clock built in 1759 on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. All 12 heads, representing the animals of the Chinese horoscope, were looted by Anglo-French troops when they sacked the palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War. The bronze heads became symbols of China’s humiliation at the hands of Western powers and the government has been keen to retrieve them. Five heads haven’t been seen since, while the others turned up over the years at various European auctions where all but two of them were secured either by the state-owned Poly Group or by wealthy collector Stanley Ho who donated them to Chinese museums.

The rat and the rabbit wound up in the insanely cluttered home of Yves Saint Laurent and his long-time companion Pierre Bergé. The latter attempted to sell them at a Christie’s auction in 2009 but controversy ensued and he wound up having to keep them. Somewhere between then and April of this year, François-Henri Pinault, billionaire CEO of Kering, the holding company that owns many luxury brands including Christie’s, bought the rat and rabbit. During a diplomatic visit to China attended by captains of French industry, Pinault announced that he would to return the bronze sculptures to China as a gesture of respect and friendship. He took pains to emphasize that this was a private gift from his family, not a repatriation from Christie’s, and said the official transfer would occur in the second half of this year.

He didn’t waste any time. Less than two weeks after the half-year mark, on Friday, June 28th, 2013, François-Henri Pinault and his father François returned the statues to China in a ceremony at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and François Pinault lifted red velvet covers from the bronzes with a flourish and both sides exchanged flattery. Francois-Henri Pinault said:

“This act represents the affection and respect of the Pinault family for the people of China. For my family it is above all a contribution to the promotion of art, and the preservation of an important cultural heritage. We always have the desire to accompany our enterprises with gestures and actions not necessarily economic or financial, but environmental or in the artistic domain. By returning these two marvels to China, my family is loyal to its commitment to preserving national heritage and artistic creation. They now return to their old home, Beijing.”

Chinese Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie said: “This gesture is an expression of deep friendship with the Chinese people.” He thanked the Pinault family for this “act of respect for and protection of China’s cultural heritage” and expressed hope that it would encourage other wealthy businessmen desperate to curry favor with the Chinese government so as to get greater access to the country’s immense buying power to donate other objects of Chinese cultural heritage. Okay, that phrasing is mine rather than his, but there’s no question of what dog the Pinault family has in this rat and rabbit hunt. They sell luxury Western brands and the return of China’s dispersed patrimony is a point of pride for the nation and its rapidly embiggening moneyed class. The PR they’ve received for this gesture is of immense value in dollars and cents as well as in reputation.

(Not everyone is impressed, mind you. This article from People’s Daily quotes several people who dismiss the bronzes as relatively low-value targets. The National Museum of China deputy curator Chen Lyusheng describes them as “water faucets made by foreigners” which while dismissive is pretty much accurate since they were fountain water spouts and they were made by Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, aka Lang Shining.)

The bronze rat and rabbit will be on permanent display at the National Museum.

The City Museum and Art Gallery of Gloucester, England, will have a local treasure of its own on permanent display starting July 11th. The city council has purchased the William I silver penny discovered in November of 2011 by metal detector hobbyist Maureen Jones in a field just north of Gloucester. They paid a very reasonable £2,000 ($3,040) for a coin that is one of a kind and a testament to the importance of Gloucester in the Middle Ages.

The silver penny was minted by William the Conqueror’s moneyer Silacwine of Gloucester between 1077 and 1080. It’s the only coin ever discovered that was minted in Gloucester between those dates. The discovery fills in a blank in Gloucester history and underscores the importance of the city in William the Conqueror’s day.

Council leader Paul James said: “We are a city with 2,000 years of history. This is a significant find of major historical importance and plugs an historical gap in local knowledge.

“It proves that coins were being minted locally throughout the reign of William something that we haven’t been able to do until now.”

Share

Police recover huge trove of looted Etruscan artifacts

Friday, June 28th, 2013

The Italian Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities) revealed on Thursday that they have recovered a massive trove of looted Etruscan artifacts. The stand-out pieces are 23 travertine funerary urns from the 3rd to 2nd century B.C., identified from their inscriptions as having all been stolen from a single Etruscan tomb in Perugia, in the central Italian region of Umbria, belonging to the patrician Cacni family. Most of the urns are decorated in high relief with battle scenes, tauromachia (bullfighting), friezes and representations of the myth of Iphigenia who was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon so that his fleet could sail for Troy.

An astonishing 3,000 more artifacts were recovered in this sting, dubbed Operation Iphigenia. Other Etruscan pieces from the Cacni tomb include a sarcophagus lid from the 4th century B.C., a bronze helmet, greave, shield, strigil and an extremely rare bronze kottabos, a Greek drinking vessel used to play a game popular at feasts and symposia involving the throwing of the wine lees at a target. Not all the artifacts are Etruscan; police also recovered thousands of other antiquities and ceramic fragments from the Middle Ages.

Officials call it without exaggeration the greatest Etruscan find since the last hypogeum — the Cai-Cutu tomb also in Perugia — was discovered in 1982, and it came very close to disappearing forever into the black market before anyone knew the artifacts existed. In fact, seven of the 23 urns were already in private hands when the police tracked them down, sold by the looters through middlemen to collectors practiced in the asking of no questions.

Operation Iphigenia started two years ago in Rome with the confiscation of a small travertine head and a picture. A person known by the police to traffic in black market antiquities was attempting to sell an Etruscan urn. He was shopping around a picture of the urn and the little head, removed from the urn in a creepy kidnapper way to prove to potential buyers that he was in possession of the artifact. The head was examined by an expert at the University of Rome Tor Vergata who identified its likely origin as an Etruscan tomb in the Perugia area.

Perugia was one of the 12 major Etruscan cities and is rich in funerary remains, most famously the Palazzone necropolis, a vast network of subterranean tombs dating from the 6th-5th century B.C. onwards. The Hypogeum of the Volumnis is an elaborate family tomb containing a number of cinerary urns similar in style to the one in the photograph. With the collaboration of the Superintendence for Archaeological Goods of Umbria, police focused their efforts on finding the source of the pictured urn in Perugia.

Investigations kicked into high gear last February when Perugian court prosecutor Paolo Abbritti coordinated increased surveillance of several people in the construction industry thought to be connected to the traffic in antiquities. The construction guys turned out to be more than just involved in the sales; they made the initial finds during work on a villa 10 years ago.

Instead of reporting the discovery to the authorities so the site could be properly excavated and the artifacts claimed by the Perugia archaeological museum, at least one crew member and the boss conspired to keep the pieces for sale on the black market. (It’s a little looter karma that it took them 10 years to sell just seven of the 23 urns and got caught in the attempt to sell the eighth. Yet again, thieves find it’s a lot harder to make a killing from the illegal sale of antiquities than they imagined when they first looked at an ancient artifact and saw dollar signs.)

The 16 urns not in private hands and the other Etruscan artifacts were found by authorities still hidden in the tomb. The find site is now in the process of being excavated by archaeologists from the Superintendence of Perugia. They expect to find more subterranean tombs connected to the Cacni chamber so this one discovery, already so hugely significant, is likely to lead to even more.

Five men have been arrested and charged for the looting and trafficking. One is the construction firm owner, another a construction worker and three middlemen who arranged the sales. It sure would be nice if those seven jerks who bought the urns felt the sharp kiss of the legal lash, but that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda right now.

Share

First unlooted Wari royal tomb found in Peru

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

A team of Polish and Peruvian archaeologists have discovered a 1,200-year-old royal mausoleum from Peru’s Wari civilization which has never been looted. Wari tombs with precious grave goods have been found before, but this is the first untouched Wari tomb that bears the marks of royalty. The site surrounding the royal burial chamber in El Castillo de Huarmey, four hours north of Lima, was not so fortunate — it had been looted repeatedly over years — but the royal mausoleum was buried under 30 tons of stone fill which kept it safe from intruders.

Maintaining that unbroken record was the first priority of the archaeological team. University of Warsaw archaeologist Milosz Giersz suspected there was a tomb on the spot when he saw the outline of it from in aerial photographs in June of 2010. Last September, the team found a room with a stone throne; underneath it was the thick stone fill. After doing what no looters had ever bothered to do, ie, dig deep into the fill, archaeologists found a large carved wooden mace and recognized it immediately as a tomb marker. They kept digging through the fill until they unearthed the mausoleum.

The team found row after row of bodies wrapped in decaying traditional textiles made from llama wool and posed in a seated position. In three small adjacent chambers they discovered the human remains of three Wari queens buried with their valuables. When Giersz from the University of Warsaw saw the glint of gold in the tomb, he realized they would have to keep the discovery secret for the duration of the excavation or the place would be picked clean by human vultures.

Somehow they managed to keep the news from leaking for months as they unearthed more than a thousand artifacts. They found silver and gold jewelry, semi-precious stone beads, bronze ritual axes, silver bowls, knives, richly decorated ceramics, an alabaster drinking cup which is the only one of its kind ever found at an ancient Andean site, carved wooden artifacts that survived in exceptional condition and my personal favorite, gold weaving tools kept in a cane box. Royal women couldn’t be expected to weave cloth with just regular tools, now could they? No, they wove with gold tools. I love that combination of practicality and luxury.

A total of 63 bodies, most of them female, were buried in the mausoleum. The three with their own chambers were royalty, 54 of the others were probably high-ranking nobility. The six remaining were not buried seated or wrapped in textiles with expensive grave goods. They were deliberately placed on top of the other burials in curious poses. Archaeologists believe they were human sacrifices.

But for archaeologists, the greatest treasure will be the tomb’s wealth of new information on the Wari Empire. The construction of an imperial mausoleum at El Castillo shows that Wari lords conquered and politically controlled this part of the northern coast, and likely played a key role in the downfall of the northern Moche kingdom. Intriguingly, one vessel from the mausoleum depicts coastal warriors battling axe-wielding Wari invaders.

The Wari also waged a battle for the hearts and minds of their new vassals. In addition to military might, they fostered a cult of royal ancestor worship. The bodies of the entombed queens bore traces of insect pupae, revealing that attendants had taken them out of the funerary chamber and exposed them to the air. This strongly suggests that the Wari displayed the mummies of their queens on the throne of the ceremonial room, allowing the living to venerate the royal dead.

Analysis of this discovery has barely begun. Giersz expects his team to be studying the find for at least a decade.

The Wari civilization flourished in much of today’s Peru between 600 and 1100 A.D. Their territory covered almost the entire length of modern Peru and reached more than halfway inland. Their capital city Huari had a population of 40,000 at a time when Paris had a population of 25,000. Since few Wari remains have been found with their original context intact, we don’t know a great deal about the Wari. This tomb is therefore of immense importance to archaeologists as it will reveal much new information about Wari society.

For more pictures of the find, see this National Geographic photo gallery.

Share

Saint-Gaudens’ Diana to be regilded

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

The monumental sculpture of the goddess Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens which once graced the tower of the second Madison Square Garden (we’re on the fourth one now) and now graces the Great Stair Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art will soon return to her brilliant gilded shine. Funded by Bank of America, the project is expected to take about four months during which conservators will research the original construction of the statue, its appearance when new, its current condition. Corrosion on the green bronze surface will then be removed to make it ready for the application of 180 square feet of gold leaf.

The gold on this icon of the Gilded Age was eroded over the 32 years Diana spent exposed to the harsh elements of New York City. She was installed 347 feet above street level on the Moorish style tower Stanford White designed inspired by Giralda, the bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville, where she towered over the city, the highest point in town and by far the shiniest. She was so bright that when the sun hit her she could be seen as far as away as the Hudson River and even New Jersey. Not even the dark night could dampen her gleam, thanks to the electrical lights that illuminated her. Diana was the first statue in the city to be lit with electricity.

Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden opened in 1890. White commissioned his friend Saint-Gaudens to make the statue as a weathervane, combining a classical theme, Beaux Arts luxury and an all-American folk art form. The one now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art was actually the second Diana to alight the tower. The first version debuted in October 1891 and was much larger, an 18-foot-high huntress which weighed 1,800 pounds. White decided she was too big, that her proportions didn’t suit the tower. Besides, she was too heavy to actually turn in the wind, which is kind of the point of even so decorative a weathervane.

Saint-Gaudens agreed and went to work on a more lithe, streamlined piece. Diana II was 13 feet high and hollow. Her pose was more balletic, her raised leg more extended, her thighs more tapered and less muscular. She was also more naked, something which did not go unnoticed by New York society when she was installed on the tower. The first Diana was taken down in September of 1892 and moved to Chicago. There she was placed atop the dome of the Agriculture Building at the Chicago World’s Fair whose massiveness easily accommodated her dimensions. Sadly, after the Exposition the bottom half of her was destroyed by a fire at the fairgrounds and the top half was lost.

The new Diana was installed in November of 1893. Her nudity made monocles pop and pearls be clutched all over town. Female nudes in public art were not decent, according to some New Yorkers. Others trained telescopes and binoculars on her to take full advantage of the rare sight. Despite the tut-tutting of her early days, Diana of the Tower, as she came to be known, quickly became an icon of the city. Author O. Henry paired her with that other famous New York lady, the Statue of Liberty, in his 1911 short story The Lady Higher Up. He describes Diana thus:

The statue of Diana on the tower of the Garden—its constancy shown by its weathercock ways, its innocence by the coating of gold that it has acquired, its devotion to style by its single, graceful flying scarf, its candour and artlessness by its habit of ever drawing the long bow, its metropolitanism by its posture of swift flight to catch a Harlem train—remained poised with its arrow pointed across the upper bay. Had that arrow sped truly and horizontally it would have passed fifty feet above the head of the heroic matron whose duty it is to offer a cast-ironical welcome to the oppressed of other lands.

Diana was also witness to one of the most lurid scandals in New York history: the murder of Stanford White himself. White’s apartment was in the tower — the advantage of being the architect is you get to make yourself the baddest domicile in town — and he was a regular attendee at Madison Square Garden’s rooftop restaurant under the shadow of tower and Diana. On June 25th, 1906, White was attending the opening night of Mam’zelle Champagne, a musical of little note that is only remembered today for the dramatic events of its premiere, when at 11:00 PM during the closing number I Could Love a Million Girls (see 18:38 of “Homer’s Night Out” for The Simpsons rendition) Henry K. Thaw walked up to White from behind and shot him three times. White died on the spot.

Thaw, heir to coal and rail millions, hated White. He had raped Thaw’s future wife, model, actress and renown beauty Evelyn Nesbit, taking her virginity when she was just 16 years old and ushering her into his company of mistresses who famously cavorted naked in a red velvet swing mounted on the ceiling of his apartment. Before she married him, Nesbit told Thaw that she was no longer a virgin and he exploded with fury. He married her anyway, but he abused her physically, emotionally and sexually. He was obsessed with White, insisting his wife notify him every time she caught a glimpse of him on the street, nursing an ever-increasing resentment that finally exploded that night on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden. He was tried for murder twice. The first resulted in a hung jury (this was the first time a jury in the US was sequestered); the second he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Although Diana was but a mute spectator to the murder, E.L. Doctorow’s fictionalization of the story Ragtime, later made into a musical, appropriately enough, puts her in the center of things. He made Nesbit the model for Diana whose nudity for all to see atop White’s masterpiece drove Thaw crazy enough to kill. That was a complete fabrication for literary purposes, though. Nesbit was eight years old when Diana was made. The real models were Davida Clark, one of Saint-Gaudens’ favorite models, his mistress and eventually the mother of his son Louis, for the face and Julia “Dudie” Baird for the body.

Even with the naked lady up top and the huge publicity from the White murder and Thaw’s trials, Madison Square Garden never turned a profit. For three decades it hosted major sporting events, horse shows, dog shows, theatrical productions, the 1924 Democratic National Convention, but there wasn’t a single year when it actually made money. The syndicate of investors, men of immense wealth including J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, P. T. Barnum and W. W. Astor, didn’t get rich by pouring good money after bad so in 1911 they sold it to a real estate company. The real estate company got a mortgage from the New York Life Insurance company which foreclosed in 1916.

The new owners leased it to boxing promoter Tex Rickard who managed to actually make money, but he decided to take the name and build a third Madison Square Garden nowhere near Madison Square. The New York Life Insurance company figured since they had the property, they might as well use it themselves. They weren’t interested in moving into the Stanford White structure, however. They wanted a skyscraper which meant Madison Square Garden II would suffer the same fate so many of White’s Beaux Arts masterpieces in New York City suffered: complete destruction.

On May 6th, 1925, demolition began. To give credit where credit is due, New York Life Insurance did their utmost to preserve the tower and Diana. Private collectors offered to buy the statue, but the company directors refused. They wanted her to be saved for the city and would only agree to release her to an institution that agreed to preserve her. There were many proposals by various New York institutions for relocating Diana. City Commissioner William Wirt Mills proposed she be relocated above the arch at the Manhattan entrance of Manhattan Bridge. Others thought she should stay in Madison Square, proposing that the tower be taken down brick by brick and rebuilt on the square with Diana on top. None of these prospects went anywhere.

With only weeks to go before scheduled demolition, New York University proposed that they take the tower and statue to grace the courtyard of a campus building designed by Stanford White. New York Life Insurance loved this idea and officially announced this was the solution. They agreed to remove the tower and statue and keep them in storage while NYU raised the money for the relocation. Everything seemed to be in place: donors signed up, permits were in order, but it just never happened. The money never came through.

The tower was destroyed. New York Life kept the statue in a warehouse in Brooklyn until 1932. By then the new 40-story New York Life Insurance Building had been up and running for four years, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art had acquired a six-foot copy of Diana reproduced from original casts for its collection. (You can see what golden Diana will look like from looking at the Met’s copy which is still bright and shiny.) Finally, the orphaned Diana of the Garden found a home, but it wasn’t in New York; it was the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The museum had just completed construction on a beautiful $18,000,000 new three-sided building with a central courtyard. There was talk of Diana going in the courtyard, but thankfully they decided to keep her indoors. Conservators at the time made repairs to the long-neglected statue, repairs which will now be reversed in keeping with a modern conservation ethos. The new restoration will be far more circumspect, not to mention fun for museum visitors. The entire process will be recorded on video and displayed on a monitor near the conservation area for visitors to view the work in progress.

Share

Salvador Dalí fruit watercolors sell for $1 million

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

In 1969, Swiss publisher Jean Schneider commissioned Salvador Dalí to make something new and exciting out of 19th century botanical illustrations. The Surrealist artist took ten images from Pierre-Antoine Poiteau’s Pomologie française: recueil des plus beaux fruits cultivés en France (originally published in 1808; Dalí probably used the 1848 edition) and three from Traité des arbres et arbustes que l’on cultive en France by Duhamel du Monceau, illustrations by Pierre-Jean Redouté. He painted over and around the engravings with watercolors, using an element of the original prints as a jumping off point for his characteristically whimsical, sexual, humorous, orthogonal-to-reality vision.

As he later declared, in connection with his designs for jewellery, ‘I see the human form in trees, leaves, animals; the animal and vegetable in the human. My art – in paint, diamonds, rubies, pearls, emeralds, gold, chrysoprase – shows the metamorphosis that takes place; human beings create and change. When they sleep, they change totally –into flowers, plants, trees. In Heaven comes the new metamorphosis. The body becomes whole again and attains perfection.’ (quoted in Dalí Jewels: A Collection of the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, Milan, 1999, p. 36).

Here’s an example of that metamorphosis he describes. The original is Monsieur hâtif by Pierre-Jean Redouté. Dalí transforms the scientifically rigorous 200-year-old botanical image into Prunier hâtif, meaning Hasty plum.

This short Bonhams video describing the series superimposes the modifications over the originals so you can see the transformation in action.

Schneider published the paintings in a lithograph series known as the FruitDalí Series which was immediately popular with art collectors. The original watercolor studies, on the other hand, went into hiding. Schneider stashed them in a bank vault and they remained there unknown for decades. With the exception of a single exhibition in an art gallery Cologne in late 2000, early 2001, the watercolors have never even been seen. The gallery purchased the watercolors on consignment from Schneider and the current owner bought them from the gallery.

The fourteen watercolors were sold at Bonhams’ Impressionist and Modern Art sale in London on June 18th not as a single lot but as individuals. They went for well above their estimates; the total price paid for all 14 was £726,700 ($1,120,000).

Share

The mystery of the spinning Egyptian statue

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Back in February of this year, Manchester Museum‘s Egyptian artifacts curator Campbell Price was walking by a display case of Middle Kingdom funerary statuettes when he noticed one of the figurines was facing the back. Very few people have the keys to the display case and if any one of them had turned the 3,800-year-old statue around for a reason, like to expose the prayer inscribed on the back, they would have checked with him first. He put it back facing forward, but the next time he noticed the statuette was turned at a different angle. The day after it was at a third angle.

None of the other figurines in the display case had budged. Price was mystified. He asked other museum staffers about it and nobody knew anything about it. Enter the inevitable speculation about eerie ancient Egyptian curses/mystical powers/pyramid energies. These kinds of statuettes were placed in the tomb as a representation of the deceased. Mourners would leave offerings at its feet, as referenced in the inscription on the back:

“An offering which the king gives to Osiris, Lord of Life, that he may give a voice offering, consisting of bread, beer, oxen and fowl for the Ka-spirit of”

The sentence is finished with an inscription of the deceased’s name on the front of the statuette base. It’s hard to read in this case, but the name appears to be “Neb-Senu.” According to Price, the Egyptians believed that these statuettes could act back-up vehicles for the spirit of the departed in the afterlife should the mummy be destroyed. Perhaps the soul of Neb-Senu felt like pirouetting.

The mummy and the statuette have been separate since at least 1933 when it was donated to the museum by Annie Barlow, daughter of Bolton cotton mill magnate James Barlow. The mill imported a great deal of cotton from Egypt and Annie became fascinated with Egyptian archaeology. She was a prominent supporter of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) and personally traveled to its excavation on the Nile Delta in 1888. This was a bold choice for a single 25-year-old woman at the time. She was also a generous donor to local museums. Under the partage system, archaeological teams were entitled to keep a percentage of any artifacts they found. Annie Barlow consistently gifted her share of EES loot to museums like the Chadwick Museum (now the Bolton Museum) and the Manchester Museum.

Even as they indulge in a little fun with the allure of an exotic Egyptian religious source for the turning, the curators are well aware that there is most likely a simple physical explanation. Vibration from visitors walking by the case or from traffic outside could cause the movement, but it’s still odd that the statue has never moved before and that none of the other statuettes in the case move an inch.

To solve the mystery of the spinning statuette, the Manchester Museum staff set up a time-lapse camera to take one picture a minute for a week. This is the extremely awesome result.

Nobody is punking the museum. Neb-Senu is definitely moving on his own. Eat your heart out, Night at the Museum (that movie was such a disappointment).

Particle physicist and TV host Brian Cox weighed in on the issue. Not surprisingly, he does not attribute the statuette’s dance to ancient Egyptian spirits, but rather to differential friction. Curator Campbell Price is still mystified.

“Brian thinks it’s differential friction where two surfaces, the serpentine stone of the statuette and glass shelf it is on, cause a subtle vibration which is making the statuette turn. But it has been on those surfaces since we have had it and it has never moved before. And why would it go around in a perfect circle?”

I asked an extremely smart scientician type I know for clarification and he explained that it’s not just the two surfaces — stone and glass — which have different friction coefficients, but different parts of the statue’s base. You can clearly see in pictures that the base is uneven. There are lumps and bumps, missing bits, smoother parts, rougher parts. That means some parts of the base are going to experience more friction against the glass shelf than others. If one corner is rougher, then when the vibrations from the floor or the outside put lateral stress on the shelf, that rougher corner with the highest friction will stay put while the rest of the base rotates around it.

That doesn’t explain why it would start in February all of a sudden, but the statuette and its shelf are in the museum’s new Egyptian Afterlife gallery and even a small change in the circumstances — a cleaning or polishing of the statue, increased vibrations from, say, construction work — could have caused the not-all-that-wild rumpus to begin.

Share

Unique 6th century gold lady found in Denmark

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

Three metal detector hobbyists scanning a field on the Danish island of Bornholm in early May discovered a stylized gold figurine of a nude woman. She’s a tiny thing, less than 1.7 inches high and weighing only three grams, but her maker managed to cram a great deal of detail in that small space.

Her slim body is elongated and gently curved and may have been carved from a solid thin bar of gold. Her face is Modigliani long with a prominent jaw and strong features. Her hair is represented by striations carved into the back of her head and forehead. Her arms stretch down to her waist but just under the shoulders there are indents on both sides that may indicate her arms have been tied to her body. Her fingers point downwards, touching a belt carved in a zig-zag pattern, while her thumbs are outstretched horizontally towards each other, meeting underneath her sagging breasts. Her genitalia are unmistakable between slender, short but remarkably shapely legs with alternating curves of buttocks, knees, calves and elegantly pointed feet. When you look at her from the side, her legs make her seem like she’s jumping or on her tippie-toes.

The detail on her back is of particular interest because it’s never been seen before. The concave sway of her back is decorated with what archaeologists are calling “teeth.” They look more like steps to me. Since this is the first example of this design discovered, its significance is unclear.

Other gold figurines have been found in this field before. The first was found in 2009. She’s the fifth and the only female.

The five figurines were probably buried in the same place, individually or collectively, at some point during the 6th century AD, i.e. the Migration Period.

Three of them were found within five metres of each other, while the other two were found 10-15 metres further away. Presumably it was the plough that separated them.

This location may have been chosen due to the presence of one or more springs.

Other artifacts, including figures made from cut and engraved gold sheets, have been found on the field. Believe it or not, the area has not yet been systematically excavated by archaeologists despite the very shiny incentive and the prospect of discovering more about a period that has very little in the way of documentary sources. Plans are in the works to rectify this.

Meanwhile, the four gold men and one gold woman are on display along with other treasures from Smørenge field at the Bornholm Museum.

Share

Napoleonic semaphore telegraph recreated

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

If like me, you are obsessed with The Count of Monte Cristo, you’ll doubtless recall the central role played by a telegraph whose operator was so ably bribed by the Count to cause a stock market panic and initiate the financial ruin of one of his enemies. The telegraph Dumas describes as “flourish[ing] its great bony arms” was a semaphore signalling system. Invented by Claude Chappe with the first line between Paris and Lille installed in 1793, the system featured relay towers placed no more than 20 miles apart from each other so they could be clearly seen by a human eyeball through a telescope. On top of each tower was a large horizontal bar with two smaller bars mounted at both ends. By turning a gear and pulley mechanism inside the tower, the operator could position the regulator (the horizontal beam) and indicators (the little guys at the ends) at various angles, each position signifying a different letter, number, syllable, symbol, common word

The operators did not have the key to read the messages. Their job was to transmit them as they saw them to the next station down the line. Only the superintendents had the code book which would allow them to translate the signals into words. This was a closely guarded military secret, and indeed the telegraph system was entirely dedicated to military and government uses in the first decades of its existence. (Yet another example of what a Batman-like badass the Count is: he knows the code.)

At its peak, the French network had 534 stations stretching over more than 3,000 miles allowing messages that would have once taken days to reach their destination in mere hours. The record was set when Napoleon’s son was born in 1811; the message got from Paris to Strasbourg in 60 minutes. Napoleon extended the Chappe telegraph system into conquered territories like Italy and Belgium and other countries installed similar networks of their own. It was the first functional long-distance communication system on the continent, although the Romans had come close with their relay fire signals. It had serious limits, though. Obviously it required good visibility, so no telegraphing at night or in bad weather, and it was almost impossible for a message to get all the way through the relays without transmission errors.

The The Count of Monte Cristo began to be published in serial form in 1844, the year Samuel Morse sent the message “What hath God wrought” through an electric wire from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, but the telegraph bribery incident is set in 1838. By the time the last chapter of The Count hit the magazine stands in 1846, France was funding an extensive new electronic telegraph system. Chappe’s system spluttered along until 1852 after which it was abandoned. The relay towers were pillaged for construction materials or left to decay.

There are a few left today in France that can be visited by tourists. One of them, the station of Mollard-Fleury, near Modane in the Alps, was rediscovered in 2002. The mechanism was not functional, but researchers found the original designs made by a very meticulous inspector on the line and were able to make an exact copy.

Visitors who make it up the brisk climb find a two-room cabin of wood and stone. The second room contains a system of wheels and pulleys, controlling the signal system which is set on a mast above the roof.

A panaromic [sic] view looks south-east across the valley to more snow-capped mountains. Beyond is Italy.

“This station was part of the Lyon to Milan line that Napoleon built in 1805 as he prepared to resume war in Italy,” explains Bernard Pinaud, who over the summer will give demonstrations of the semaphore.

“Ultimately it extended as far as Venice, allowing the emperor to get messages to his armies in northern Italy in a matter of a few hours.”

One such message has been discovered in the records of a nearby village.

It reads: “The Legion of the South may recruit men in Turin from among the Piedmontese prisoners-of-war or Austrian deserters . However it must not recruit men who are not from Piedmont.”

Behold, the Chappe telegraph station of Mollard-Fleury in action:

Share

Red Faun travels to US for the first time

Friday, June 21st, 2013

A striking Roman statue from the 2nd century A.D. has crossed the Atlantic for the first time. On loan from Rome’s Capitoline Museum, the Fauno Rosso or Red Faun is now on display at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The museum has kitted out its Kirkwood Hall to look like a Roman palazzo with the Faun (it’s actually a satyr since it was originally Greek and it doesn’t have goat legs) as its centerpiece.

The Fauno rosso depicts a satyr, follower of Dionysus, the god of wine. The entire sculpture is of red marble, rather than the commonly used white marble, and seems to suggest that the subject is so drunk that his skin has turned into the color of the grapes. To his left is a goat that looks up at him and rests one leg on a wicker basket. The Fauno rosso’s eyes would have been of glass or brilliant stone (the sockets have been hollowed out to receive them) and would have been sparkling with life and energy.

Art historians believe it’s a Roman copy of a late Hellenistic Greek original, probably a bronze. Given its find spot — on the site of the small palace of Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, it’s likely the sculpture was commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian himself. The artists are thought to have been Aristeas and Papias of Aphrodisias who made and signed two other famous sculptures, the Young Centaur and the Old Centaur, discovered on the site and now also in the Capitoline Museum.

The Red Faun was unearthed by Monsignor Giuseppe Furietti, an antiquarian who secured digging rights to the small palace site, in 1736. (Furietti also found the Centaurs that same year in the same area.) It was far from complete. All that was found of the original Faun was the head, the nude torso, a partial left arm, the torso of the goat, some of the fruit on the draped cloak (called a nebris), one thumb and a fragment of the basket. Although Furietti had incurred Pope Benedict XIV’s eternal wrath when he refused to give him the Centaurs, he did give him the Red Faun. The Pope would donate it to the newly opened Capitoline Museum in 1746, but before it was ready to go on public display, it obviously needed a lot of work.

In 1744, Marchese Capponi, the first director of the Capitoline Museum, commissioned two young Roman sculptors, Clemente Bianchi and Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, to make a showable sculpture out of the pieces. Thanks to the Vatican’s most wonderful habit of hoarding all its paperwork, we still have the invoice showing what each of them did. They were both paid the same amount, but Bianchi was in charge of carving the hard red marble — a material chosen by the Romans for its expense and difficulty rather than its suitability for sculpture — while Cavaceppi made the preparatory models, casts of the missing pieces and polished and cleaned the finished product.

It was Cavaceppi, therefore, who would go on to become the premiere restorer of 18th century Rome, who designed and cast the base, arms, legs, the shepherd’s pipe to the Faun’s right that doubles as support for the trunk, the goat and the basket to the Faun’s left. The marble used for the new parts was a close match in color (although it had to be stained to match the patina of the ancient pieces), but it has very noticeable thick grey veins running through it. Caveceppi also deliberately added cracks and nicks to integrate the new marble into the old.

This process was not restoration the way we think of it today. With so many parts of antique sculptures coming to light (300 sculptures were found at Hadrian’s Villa alone), many of them inscrutable body parts — artists in the 18th century put them together however they wanted. The identity of the original statue, which person or deity it had represented, was not any kind of priority. Embellishments and reconfigurations, some of them highly questionable, were the order of the day.

In other words, we have no idea what the Red Faun looked like when it was made in the 2nd century A.D. or what the late Hellenstic bronze, looked like. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to see him in Kansas City, look for those grey stripes in the marble to distinguish between original and 18th century parts.

Share